White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement: There’s Still More to Know

White evangelicalism’s failure to support the civil rights movement during the 1960s is well-known. It’s an old story that has grown stale with the telling. As scholars and white evangelicals themselves have repeated it, the story has become encrusted in myth. Because finding examples of racism among white evangelicals in the 1960s is like shooting fish in a barrel, we might think that:

–There was no significant diversity of thought about the civil rights movement within white evangelicalism.

–Most white evangelicals weren’t exposed to evangelical alternatives and so, in a sense, didn’t know better.

–At some point after the fact, white evangelicals realized they had failed to act justly during the civil rights movement.

While there is a measure of truth to these ideas, added together they amount to a very misleading picture of white evangelicalism in this period. In fact, I would argue the inverse of these propositions is closer to the truth. If you’ve read David Swartz’s work on the evangelical left, you already have some sense of this.

What’s more striking to me is that you didn’t have to be a member of the evangelical left to be exposed to, or even espouse, pro-civil rights movement ideas. When I look at white evangelical publications of the 1960s, what jumps out at me is the pervasiveness of the white evangelical self-critique on questions of race and civil rights. In other words, rather than realizing after the fact that they had done wrong, white evangelicals were warning each other as events unfolded that they were losing credibility and failing to live out their beliefs.

Any white evangelical who was moderately engaged with evangelical debates of the time as expressed through evangelical publications would have been exposed to this critique. Even if they only read Christianity Today, they would have at least seen letters to the editor calling white evangelicals to repentance. And CT is not an adequate stand-in for the entirety of white evangelicalism. At the local level, students newspapers at white evangelical colleges often took much more aggressive pro-civil rights stances. At many white evangelical colleges, the predominant tone of their civil rights coverage was self-flagellation, lamenting the sins of white Christians.

And then there are national publications like Eternity magazine. It’s true that its circulation was smaller than Christianity Today’s, but it was no less evangelical, and it was more willing to call white evangelicals to task for the sin of racial injustice. What probably set Eternity apart from CT more than anything was the relative frequency with which it published black authors. The readers of Eternity were not of the left. They were conservative evangelicals. And they were hearing white evangelical self-criticism and black evangelical perspectives.

race and the church
Eternity Magazine, November, 1961.

Let’s look at one example of white evangelical self-criticism. After Eternity published an article in the spring of 1964 about a Philadelphia church that had integrated (“The Case of the Color-Blind Church”), a reader wrote:

Here we are in Christian America in the year 1964 and because a white Christian Church has twenty Negro members it rates a story in one of our leading religious journals.

Why should there be anything so unusual about a church opening its doors to everybody? Well, it is unusual and this is our sin. If our churches were truly Christian all of them would welcome minorities.

Who is to blame that most of our evangelical churches are not interracial? We all are. Our Christian colleges, seminaries, and Bible schools have fallen down miserably. Our leaders are timid and silent. Some are uninformed moderates and some are actually segregationist in spirit if not in deed.

Take a long look at the Negro. He is a human being, he has an immortal soul, he is subject to the joys and sorrows of all mankind. In God’s sight he is as valued as every other human being.

But in so-called Christian America with its vast program of evangelism, missions, and institutionalism only a handful of churches welcome members of another race and color. And even less than handful actively participate in the Negro struggle for equality and justice.

What does our  Lord think of our blindness and neglect? At the Judgment Seat we shall surely get the answer. We will find that much of our vaunted spirituality and activity is “hay, wood, and stubble” and that in racial discrimination we revealed how shallow and fickle is our devotion to Jesus Christ and his plain commandments.

It is almost certainly too late to gain the Negro’s respect and confidence. But it is never too late to repent, to seek God’s forgiveness, and then to do His will even if this leads to many strange and painful paths of duty.

This is a good example of the white evangelical self-critique because the writer is insisting that racial justice was not only a complicated political question—as the moderates would have it—but actually cut so close to the heart of the Gospel that it affected one’s final and eternal judgment (in which any good evangelical believed). This was hard-hitting.

Ok, so there was diversity of thought. The harder question to begin to answer is this: if this self-critique was so widespread, why was it so impotent? (Or was it?) The white evangelical mainstream in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump does not exactly look like a religious movement that learned its lesson. On the other hand, much has changed. I’m still puzzling this out.

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